In Europe, marriage is back

New figures show the number of French marriages has reached a 15-year high.

Reports of matrimony's death, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.

At least in Europe. After many years of precipitous decline, marriage rates are leveling out and even rising again in some of the biggest European countries.

The figures suggest that doom-mongers predicting the collapse of one of society's central pillars jumped the gun. Young people who they thought had abandoned marriage were simply taking their time to consider it, demographers have decided.

And now they are making up their minds. In Britain, marriage rates rose for the first time in eight years in 2000, the last year for which figures are available. In France last year, for the second year in a row, marriages were at a 15-year high. In Germany, the numbers have held steady since 1996 after dropping for years.

"The reason is very simple," explains French demographer Hervé Le Bras. "All over Europe people are getting married later, so for a few years there was a drop in marriage rates. Now they are picking up again. In the end the number of marriages each generation won't change that much, but for a few years we saw fewer of them."

Twenty years ago, the average French bridegroom was 25 and his bride was 23. Today they are both five years older, and a similar pattern has emerged in other European countries.

That is partly because young women have been studying more, and taking jobs that give them the economic security they once sought in marriage. But it is mainly because both men and women have spent some of those five years living together without tying the knot.

Anne Marchand, a 33-year-old singer, moved from her native Paris to London last year to live with her British fiancé, whom she will be marrying next June. She sees getting married as "a social gesture, because when you commit to someone in public it makes the commitment stronger."

Wanting children, and preferring to bring them up in the legally secure framework of a marriage, Ms. Marchand is not satisfied with just living together. But it has taken her a long time to reach that point.

"I've been completely taken up with my singing," she says. "I have devoted my time to getting my career off the ground, and until recently I was not emotionally available for a commitment to someone else."

Though living together is still frowned upon in southern European countries such as Greece and Portugal, it has lost its social stigma elsewhere. In Britain, for example, 70 percent of first partnerships are cohabiting, according to studies by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

It was that kind of finding that led sociologists to proclaim the end of marriage as an institution. But as the years have gone by, they have discovered that most couples who live together end up getting married – often when they decide to have children.

Sixty percent of British couples living together out of wedlock eventually marry, and the same is true of France. "Today," says a report from the French government's statistics bureau INSEE, "the institution [of marriage] consecrates less the formation of a couple, and more the transformation of an unmarried couple into a married one."

"Increasingly, weddings are ways of confirming commitment rather than making a commitment," adds Penny Mansfield, director of the London-based research organization One Plus One.

The recent rise in the marriage rate in Britain was a small one – just 2 percent – and it is too early to know its longer term significance. But Richard Kane, who runs the annual National Marriage Week, sees what he calls "the beginning of a trend.

"Many couples who have cohabited successfully for a couple of years want something that will give their relationship a lot more gravity, so they morph it into a marriage," he says.

During the years that young Europeans have been thinking marriage over, the institution has taken on a different sort of meaning, say social analysts.

"Marriage is less and less a device for imposing social order, and more and more a question of solidarity between two individuals," says Marcela Iacub, an expert on the legal aspects of sexual relations at the School of Higher Studies in Paris.

As evidence, she points to the way in which homosexuals across Europe have made the demand for legal gay marriage one of their key rallying cries. Though France has introduced a Civil Solidarity Pact, giving binding legal stature to unmarried couples – both straight and gay – only Holland has placed homosexual marriages on a legal par with heterosexual unions.

Elsewhere in Europe, even traditional marriages are not easy to organize. In Germany, for example, a bureaucratic paper maze can take months for would-be brides and grooms to negotiate. Some German couples give up the unequal struggle and go abroad.

The British government is currently relaxing the rules surrounding weddings, to make them easier and to give couples more choice of location. Among the ideas on the table are proposals to allow people to post their banns on the Internet, and to marry wherever they like, from a clifftop to the bottom of a swimming pool, so long as "the seemly and dignified nature of the marriage ceremony is not compromised," in the words of a government report.

Though some traditionalists are upset by this development, the Church of England takes a more measured view.

"We would like it if everyone got married in church," says Arun Kataria, a church spokesman.

"But the important thing is that people enter into lasting, binding, and seriously undertaken marriages."

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